Defending Democracy and the Rule of Law

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DRAFT STATEMENT VIENNA

 

The European Union was founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the rule of law. These values are the foundation of a free, tolerant and just European society. Many of the freedoms and rights that we Europeans enjoy today were won through long and tough struggles.

 

Though democracy is at the very heart of the European project, a vast number of people feel that democracy in Europe can no longer be taken for granted. Whether it refers to restricted media freedoms, or unconstitutional legislation; reports of democratic backsliding continue to surface.

 

European citizens are in distress as they see the rise of populist authoritarianism that brushes aside dissent and cares little about the functioning of an open and liberal democratic system. This system is based on three pillars: democracy, the rule of law, and the respect for human rights. These three pillars hold the European project in place. They work together.

 

The road away from democracy is seldom characterised by blatant violations of the rule of law. Instead, the path away from democracy typically relies on actions within the law, meaning the law is deployed to undermine legality and the rule of law. Many recent instances of democratic decline follow this counter-intuitive logic.

 

For instance, In Hungary, the Fidesz Government of Viktor Orbán used a large parliamentary majority to make it extremely difficult for the courts to keep government powers in check. As most ordinary courts are still behaving independently, the government created a new court to deal with questions about elections, the right to public protest and corruption. In addition, electoral boundaries have been re-drawn in favour of the ruling party; the government used public money to fund public information advertisements that carried the ruling party’s electoral campaign messages. Incumbent officials were removed to make way for Fidesz loyalists, who have facilitated the rise of what Orbán calls “illiberal” or “non-liberal” democracy.

 

“Illiberalism” is an ideological stance that rejects the necessity of independent institutions as checks on the government and dismisses the idea of legitimate disagreement in the public sphere.  In this illiberal environment, citizens are able to go to protests, publish articles, or make critical remarks on social media without risking violent prosecution. However, such activities will expose them to intrusive government inspections and ferocious attacks in government-aligned media, and even discrimination in employment.

 

The alternative vision of the illiberal norm one is one that demands countries barricade themselves against the world, which in turn becomes an excuse for intolerance, exclusion and raving populism. All this generates deep distrust in the European institutions, boosting a distorted narrative, one where Europe is the scapegoat for all possible evils.

 

Another example of democratic decline is found in Poland. Since coming to power, the Law and Justice party has systematically undermined checks and balances and independent institutions central to any genuine democracy. Parliament has adopted laws obstructing the work of the Constitutional Tribunal, and enabling political interference in appointing and dismissing judges. The authorities have also curbed media freedom, limited freedom of assembly, and sought to silence the voices of non-governmental groups.

 

While our Union is based on a win-win model, polarisation, nationalism and extremism are all based on zero-sum condition. The winner-takes-it-all mentality says: we are right and they are wrong. Therefore, they have no right to speak out. Those determined to undermine the open democratic fabric of Europe, treat political rivals as enemies of the people not as party-political opponents. However, an open democracy presupposes that if you win an election, you show respect for those who have lost the election. In a democracy, the minority, the opposition, is as essential for the functioning of that democracy, as is the majority or the ruling party. Regrettably, this notion is being challenged in an increasing number of member states.

 

We cannot forget that democracy is built through open societies that share information. When there is information, there is debate and when there is debate, solutions are found. Inversely, where there is no rule of law, there is abuse, corruption and lack of basic freedoms.

 

Democracy is at the very core of the European project and the democratic challenge we face must be at the centre of our actions. We cannot succumb to silence and a sense of powerlessness. The European Parliament has shown that was not afraid when it voted by an overwhelming majority to censure the Hungarian government for eroding democracy and failing to uphold fundamental European Union values. Every European citizen has the right to live in a functioning democracy and we will always fight to protect it! Together we must:

 

– stand firmly behind a strong European democracy. We must fight relentlessly against any government’s takeover of the judicial system and violations of ordinary parliamentary procedures. We must equally fight against governments that disdain independent institutions and seek to fuse the ruling party with the state,

 

– not be afraid to act when the rule of law is under threat. We must always protect media freedom, the separation of powers and sanction without compromise any attacks on independent civil society in whatever shape,

 

– develop a wide range of sanctions, which are sophisticated, fierce and act as a deterrent when governments attempt to make “reforms” which run counter to the rule of law. We need to find new ways to defend our democracy. For instance, by linking the compliance with the rule of law and budgetary sanctions,

 

– show respect for diversity and strengthen the protection of minorities in our Union, be they ethnic, religious or sexual; as well as protect the independence of the academic community.

 

We need more democracy not less!

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Comments are open until October 2nd and we will announce the next TOGETHER Ambassadors on October 3rd.

Debate



When I had to write the other day some words on democracy on a whiteboard at an exhibition. We learned in school many times that the word democracy came from the Greek and literally translates to that the power belongs to the people. But what is the problem that we simply can’t understand the importance of it when we look around? We see people not being able or hindered to vote in other countries and we feel bad because they have to live with leaders, that were not the choice by the majority but on our skin we, my generation in Austria, has never experienced it. We were encouraged to go to vote as soon as we can from different institutions since we can remember but only in recent years the awareness about how important it really is showed in numbers when we had to face the chance of having Norbert Hofer as our president. The increased number of voters didn’t happen because we were just acting by what we have been told, it was because people didn’t want to live with a right wing president or earlier at the municipal election with a major called HC Strache. Also now, in the recent election 2017, more and more younger people went to vote and we had 80 percent turnout of voters. So that’s the thing with democracy and maybe thats the best thing: in good times we can’t even imagine what it would be without it! Democracy is something that makes us believe that we are so far away from all the absolutistic tyrants and atrocities that we can actually forget about it in our life of wealth and chances. But as mentioned, slowely the number of people who are getting to the polls in times of chance will be raising again because I believe, my generation will not accept any more inequality that the recent government is spreading into peoples mind and we will feel importance of democracy on our skin again until a future generation has to think back to the Greek when they will be asked to write the meaning of it on a whiteboard.

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Profile photo of Mavie Mavie

I am both European and Pole. It hurts me every time I see what the far-right governing party is doing in my country. The politicians are not only breaking the fundamental values of the EU or the Polish constitution – they are destroying our European community in cooperation with Hungarian Viktor Orbán. Probably many of you are wondering why did it happen, why the one of the most promising European democracies is heading into direction of authoritarianism and oligarchy. That’s because people don’t believe into politicians any more. The previous center-right coalition did not accomplish any major success. Of course our economy was progressing, the new roads were build etc. But during all those years the people in power forget about the most important thing – the people. The Government did not do anything in such areas as social protection. They forgot that the nation does not consist of numbers and empty buildings. After that everything rolled out into the situation which we can see today. The only question is how to change it? How to make our citizens believe in their representatives, believe in democracy? First of all, the EU should make firm steps to influence politicians. We need to remember them that their duty is to serve the community not destroy it. However we all see that they do not care about our values. That’s why it it good that the European Commission decided to start the procedure of article 7. But it is not the end. The article might stop the populists from destroying their regions but after that we need to show people that the safe, bright future is called the EU. How? Well, it won’t be easy but personally I have several ideas. First of all, we need to show the citizens the presence of the biggest European parties in their everyday life. When it comes to me – I have never seen any European parties to be present in my city, district or even country. All I see is only the meetings in Brussels. That’s mistake – because we need to restore confidence in politicians. People should come to the offices of parties or local authorities with belief that those people actually represent them, that they care about their fate. I think that S&D should also create more initiatives like Europe Together. I mean that now it looks like the European parties are financing the local ones. Meanwhile I think that the S&D should look for young, energetic people itself. By the local initiatives which would govern them. I believe that there are many young people like me – on this platform – for whom the fate of the Europe is an important topic. Unfortunately they do not have money to promote themselves, so they lose to the more popular candidates (like populists), or give up at the beginning and choose the job which will provide them money to live. I also think that harmonisation of the EU structures plays a major role in this topic. We need to create the same standards of social protection, healthcare system, education system, law, taxes etc. across all of the EU. This would align standards of living between the rich regions ant those which are still developing. At the end we all need to remember about one thing – we cannot ever leave the Eastern Europe. We need to defend it with all our strength, we need to protect our citizens because this is what the EU is all about – unity, equality, freedom.

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